Rendering of the proposed Holiday Inn Express fails to show the vehicular traffic that concerned neighbors say will further gum up an already congested Lake Street. | Provided

The proposal for a Holiday Inn Express & Suites in downtown Oak Park is on its second lap through the village approval process. The previous village board approved the original special-use permit request for the hotel at 1140 Lake St. in late 2019. However, the project was shelved with the onset of COVID-19 and the approval has lapsed, necessitating applicants Azim and Salim Hemani to embark on the process a second time.

The project scored the endorsement of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on Dec. 1, but zoning board members were at a loss over the prospect of reconciling Lake Street’s current traffic problems, let alone the hotel’s potential to cause additional congestion.

“To think we’re going to resolve this with legislation or turning this [application] down, I think, is really misdirected,” said ZBA member Mas Takiguchi.

Plans for the hotel have changed slightly in the intervening time between 2019 and the present. While the original proposal had 98 hotel rooms, which would have meant adding three more floors to the existing 5-story building, the new iteration has 68 rooms and only one added floor. The first floor will continue to be used for retail, but the hotel concierge’s desk will also occupy the first floor.

Project architect Barkat Virani told the zoning board the changes would mitigate the hotel’s impact on traffic, and it is expected that only half the guests would need parking.

Neighbors, however, remained unconvinced, though they were not necessarily against having a hotel occupy the building. Those at the meeting expressed anxiety hotel guests would exacerbate the standing traffic issue caused by people illegally parking outside nearby businesses. 

Such businesses include cannabis dispensary MedMen and Nando’s Peri-Peri restaurant, both of which are located on the first floor of the building intended for the Holiday Inn. The problems are compounded by Chipotle Mexican Grill, located next door, as customers often double park on Lake Street and block the easement to Holley Court garage, according to residents.

Residents were further unconvinced that guests would know to use the hotel’s primary entrance, located on the second floor and accessible via the bridge attached to the village-owned Holley Court garage, rather than the Lake Street hotel entrance. Concerns were raised that guests checking into the hotel would likely park their cars on Lake Street, causing further blockage.

“I feel that we could direct people all you want into this garage, but it’s a very tough sell,” said ZBA member Steve Ruszczyk.

He added that the hotel had an “insufficient way to get in the front and an insufficient way to get in the rear.”

The ZBA found residents’ suggestion of a valet service, which the Hemani brothers presently have no plans to pursue, ultimately an ineffective traffic-mitigation idea. Neither Lake Street nor the building’s back alley have areas for cars awaiting valet parking to queue, the zoning board reasoned.

Noting that solving Oak Park’s ever-evolving traffic problem was outside their purview, the ZBA voted 5-to-1 in favor of recommending the village board approve the request for a special-use permit with the condition that hotel signage be affixed on the west of the building. The ZBA also directed the applicant to present a plan for delivery hours and areas during the permit application process. Ruszczyk cast the dissenting vote.

Chair Jim Lencioni told residents they had the ability to present their worries to the village board, which will make the final call. He noted that the board’s membership had changed considerably since 2019.

“This is a different body,” Lencioni said.

Still, the traffic issue weighed heavily on zoning board members, with Takiguchi considering the night’s conversation as a harbinger of sorts. He told his fellow zoning board members traffic was likely to worsen as downtown Oak Park continues to grow and redevelop.

“Things are going to get more like Lincoln Park than Oak Park at this point,” said Takiguchi. “I don’t think we can hide from it; I think we’ve got to manage it.”

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